Notes to my teenage self: 12 British celebs on their experiences of racism

This article was first published in November 2020.

Growing up with racism is difficult, whether or not you were aware of it happening to you or around you. If you could go back and tell your teenage self what to expect, what would you say?

In 'Notes to my teenage self', BBC Bitesize’s latest collection, 12 celebrities who've experienced racism look back at themselves at ages 13, 16 and 19, revisiting the challenges and pressures they endured. They uncovered how experiencing racism has affected their mental health, then and now.

Here is what they found, the advice they would give to their teenage selves and advice they have for young people growing up in the digital age.

'I wish I'd worked that out sooner.'

Whether or not they were aware of racism, the celebs knew from a young age that skin colour mattered.

Moving from St Lucia to England at the age of nine, actress Danielle Vitalis was referred to as “the black girl” at school. She also noticed how her friend was portrayed negatively in the news when she passed away, as it was assumed her friend was involved in gang violence when she wasn't.

“It was kind of scary, because we were all trying so hard to be excellent.”

Radio and TV presenter Julie Adenuga said she’d never had a direct experience with racism, but noticed it going on around her in the media. She saw people being stopped and searched for driving certain cars or being unfairly arrested, and the common denominator was all those people were black.

EastEnders star Sharon Duncan-Brewster said that she experienced name-calling first hand, and she would confront it if she could go back. She would tell her teenage self, “Your right is to be here and to be proud of who you are.”

If you hear someone using racist language, whether or not it’s directed at you, it can be difficult to know what to do. Never put yourself in danger - read our Bitesize guide here.

Danielle would tell her teenage self to keep striving for excellence

'It was the smaller things that affected me more.'

The celebs talked about the effects of experiencing both macro- and micro-aggressions while growing up.

A macro-aggression is an intentional and extreme form of aggression towards someone based on their characteristics (race, gender, culture, etc.), for example using physical violence or slurs.

“He got beaten up over the park because of racism,” says Sir Lenny Henry, referring to his teenage self. “He got called names every day at school because of racism.”

A micro-aggression is a more subtle form of aggression, and can be verbal or non-verbal, intentional or unintentional. They’re often automatic and are a result of growing up internalising certain ways of thinking.

Actress Sèverine Howell-Meri recalled experiencing micro-aggressions all through school. People told her her lips were too big, so she’d try and smile to make them look thinner. They asked her “which side” she preferred - her black or her white family. She remembers being very aware of racism, but not having the vocabulary or the courage to articulate herself against it.

Spotting micro-aggressions can be tricky, because you may not be able to put your finger on why something feels wrong. However, the effects of them build up every day and this can be damaging to a person’s mental health and self-esteem.

"If you're angry, breathe - breathing is a really, really good thing."

'It starts with your mind, health and feelings.'

We’ve seen people all over the world mobilise to protest against discrimination in recent years, so perhaps you feel like you should be fighting all the time.

“You don’t have to go out and protest,” said actor Kadeem Ramsay. “You can show your support in many ways.”

A protest can take many forms aside from marching in the street: this could include making art, music, poetry or storytelling. Maybe your form of protest is to educate yourself - but you don’t have to be switched on every minute of every day. It’s important to take time to process the information we consume, especially as social media makes it so easy to access.

Rapper Bries wished he’d known to take care of himself more as a teen: “I don’t think self-care was even a concept on his mind - it was all about what’s the next adventure.”

The celebs all had advice for navigating the news. Sèverine recommended writing your feelings down or meditating as a welcome distraction from it all. Actors Danny Sapani and Abubakar Salim advised finding a community of people you love and trust and reaching out for support. You could also protect yourself online by unfollowing accounts which put out negative information, or even dedicate time to switch off your phone and log out from everything.

Radio presenter Dev Griffin wants you to know that it’s not your responsibility to save the world on your own:

“It’s more important to look after yourself - that in its way is a protest.”

If you need support

You should always tell someone about the things you’re worried about. You can tell a friend, parent, guardian, teacher, or another trusted adult. If you're struggling with your mental health, going to your GP can be a good place to start to find help. Your GP can let you know what support is available to you, suggest different types of treatment and offer regular check-ups to see how you’re doing.

If you’re in need of in-the-moment support you can contact Childline, where you can speak to a counsellor. Their lines are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

There are more links to helpful organisations on BBC Action Line.

Notes to my teenage self: Danny Sapani and Abubakar Salim
Notes to my teenage self: Percelle Ascott and Remel London
Notes to my teenage self: Sir Lenny Henry and Kadeem Ramsay